Early Reports of Syrian Protests in 2011: seeking a due degree of epistemic diligence

This chapter examines Syria coverage published from March to September 2011, focusing particularly on accounts that, although in the public domain, remained largely unnoticed by Western publics amidst the overwhelming agreement in the mainstream media. Some of these accounts are very telling since they raise serious questions about the fundamental premises of what we can call the official narrative.

The substantive significance of these heterodox insights for the historical record, however, is not to be pronounced on here. The reason for highlighting them is to allow reflection on the nature and degree of epistemic diligence that would have been required of citizens or scholars in the West in order to become as aware of them as with the benefit of hindsight and continued work by independent journalists, citizen investigators and scholars now are. And a further purpose of reflecting on this is to help attain a broader understanding of what might reasonably be expected of different investigators in different contexts.

The view reaching Western publics of what was happening in Syria in March 2011 and the following months was presented in the influential press through a series of defining events and a unifying narrative. A representative account of the events as readily available to be picked up on by a reasonably well-informed citizen is the scholarly summary offered by Ken Seigneurie:

 ‘If there was a tipping point into widespread consciousness of the need to speak out, it was perhaps the arrest of a number of boys under 15 years of age in Darʿā on 6 March. Hunger strikes among jailed political prisoners immediately followed, and a Day of Rage on 15 March drew hundreds and perhaps thousands in Damascus as revealed in a YouTube film of the event. Moreover, the Syrian regime’s unimaginative policy of meeting verbal dissent with increasing brutality ensured ample reason for mobilizing the discourses of mourning, progressive commitment and human rights. When Ḥamzah al-Khatīb, a 13-year-old boy, was tortured and died in the custody of the Syrian authorities in April and May, again death served as the center of a virtual scene of standing by the ruins. The Facebook page honoring his death soon drew more than 100,000, and the boy’s name became a rallying cry at demonstrations. (p.500) Since then, the now famous cases of the singer, Ibrāhīm Qāshūsh, who was murdered, and the caricaturist, ʿAlī Farzāt, who was beaten, continue to motivate revolutionary fervor. By mid-2012 the regime’s policy of unremitting violence arguably transformed the struggle into civil war.’ (Ken Seigneurie 2012)

It was noted in Chapter 2 (Hayward 2021b) that, with the benefit of hindsight, certain questions can be raised about some of those symbolic moments, and questions about others will be discussed in later chapters. At the time, however, not only were these not widely aired, there were also few public mentions in the West of events that could suggest another side to the story. The unifying narrative presented in the Western media thus passed unchallenged. Nevertheless, making further use of the benefit of hindsight, it is possible to discern a quite different perspective. Although much less well known than mainstream journalists, there were some journalists, citizen investigators and academics critically assessing the quality of evidence being relied on from very early in the conflict, garnering different witness standpoints and examining anomalies in reports. Had their perspective reached a wider audience, it could have influenced public opinion and thus policy makers in the West with the possible result that events themselves might have unfolded differently. So it is important to seek to understand how reasonably well-informed citizens in the West could have been misled. To see this, one needs to have access to evidence that supports a credible alternative perspective.

An alternative perspective on the early events of 2011 in Syria

There seems to be general agreement that the Deraa incident was a key event. Speaking two months later, Camille Otrakji (2 May 2011) observed:

‘The revolt started out as a legitimate one, when it was based in Dar’aa. The people there were genuinely fed up with the local head of security, who was a relative of the president, and so at first they protested against his abuse of power and his corruption. But this took place against the backdrop of the events in Egypt and Tunisia, so certain groups decided to try and capitalize on this act of protest in Dar’aa and turn it into a nationwide revolt.’

The scholar and journalist Sharmine Narwani (February 2012) was ready to assume ‘that the Syrian government was over zealous in its use of force initially, and therefore violated the Principle of Necessity.’ However, like Otrakji, Narwani also identified major matters on which the media presented a one-sided view. She highlighted the formidable difficulties – methodological and practical – in counting casualties. This was even in the period before the UN relinquished any further attempt to do so. A charge against the government she could not find reliable evidence of – certainly not by any measure acceptable in a court of law – was that the government had violated the Principle of Proportionality:

‘Claims that the regime has used disproportionate force in dealing with the crisis are, today, difficult to ascertain, in large part because opponents have been using weapons against security forces and pro-regime civilians almost since the onset of protests.’

This alternative and critical perspective suggests the possibility both that the opposition’s early use of weapons was downplayed in the media and that the share of responsibility for the unfolding disaster attributable to the Syrian government was over-stated.

Opposition violence at early protests

Although mention of the opposition using weapons was hardly publicised at the time, there were nonetheless witness testimonies in the public domain well before September 2011, the point by which the arming of the opposition was more widely recognized.

It has already been noted (Hayward 2021b) how Al Jazeera actively suppressed coverage of some evidence including the footage, provided by their reporter Ali Hashem, of armed men crossing the Lebanese border into Syria during April and May 2011. This showed militants shooting in the Talkalakh area on the Syrian side, with weapons that included Kalashnikovs and Rocket Propelled Grenades (RPGs).

But opposition violence had started before April. Indeed, right from what some call ‘the start of the Syrian revolution’ one can find such incidents recorded. The highly respected Indian political analyst, Prem Shankar Jha (2014) examined evidence of what happened when trouble broke out on March 18 in Dera’a, on the Jordanian border. ‘The international media, led by the Qatar-based Al Jazeera, and the Riyadh-based Al Arabiya television channels immediately accused Assad’s forces of firing into the crowd to disperse it.’ Yet the Syrian government’s claim that the shots were fired by armed men who had infiltrated the procession might better explain why, of the four killed that day, one was a policeman. However, according to Syrian journalist Alaa Ebrahim who later visited the places in Dara’a where the incidents had occurred, the shooters were a third-party – neither protesters nor state forces:

‘I’ve interviewed protesters who went along with them, I’ve interviewed security officers and policemen who were at the scene. Actually, stories don’t always match each other but something that all the people I have interviewed have agreed upon is that they don’t know who shot at the protesters who were killed the first day. Protesters have told me that the shooting took place from a high place over a water-tank in the city and they couldn’t identify the people who were shooting’ (Ebrahim, in Tharappel 2018)

In the following days, Gabe Kahn (2011-03-21) reported in the Israeli newspaper Arutz Sheva, that ‘seven police officers were killed, and the Baath Party Headquarters and courthouse were torched’. This was not reported in most of the Western press. Evidence of escalating violence at that time was attested by the local Reuters correspondent, Suleiman Khalidi (2011) reporting that by 23 March a total of 37 bodies had been brought to the Dera’a hospital. He stated that they were all civilians, but Jha notes that ‘all news reports had been unanimous that 13 civilians had been killed till March 23’. As for the remaining number to account for, Jha cites the claim later made on the government’s side that a truck full of Syrian army soldiers sent as reinforcements to Dara’a had been killed in an ambush.Although this incident was not publicised at the time by either side, it was recorded by Rami Abdul Rahman, the anti-government activist who runs the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR). According to Rahman’s estimate, ‘about 18 or 19 security forces – or “mukhabarat” – were killed.’ (Narwani 2014) This report was confirmed by Syria’s Deputy Foreign Minister Dr. Faisal Mekdad who believed around 24 Syrian army soldiers were shot that day, but whose account was otherwise similar to the opposition activist’s, ‘down to the details of where the ambush took place – and how.’ (Narwani 2014) (Asked why the Syrian government would hide this information, given it supported their contention that armed groups were targeting authorities from the start, Mekdad replied that it had sought ‘not to encourage any attempt to inflame emotions which may lead to escalation of the situation’; a Daraa resident suggested, ‘the government did not want to show they are weak and the opposition did not want to show they are armed.’)

Then on 24 March, as actually covered by the Daily Mail, ‘Syria’s state-run TV reported that four people died when ‘an armed gang’ attacked an ambulance in Daraa. It showed footage of guns, AK47s, hand grenades and other ammunition as well as stashes of Syrian money which it said was seized from inside al-Omari mosque. The dead reportedly included a doctor, a paramedic, a driver and a policeman. The conflicting information and the discrepancy in the toll of the dead could not be immediately reconciled.’ (Daily Mail 24 March 2011)]

A month later came what Jha calls ‘incontrovertible confirmation’ that the violence was being driven by the opposition side. This was

‘when “peaceful protesters” stopped an army truck outside Dera’a and again killed all the 20 soldiers in it. But this time they did so by cutting their throats. This was the sanctified method of killing that the “Afghanis”, as the Afghanistan-returned Jihadis were called in Algeria, had used to kill more than ten thousand villagers during two years of bitter insurgency after the First Afghan war. It was to be seen over and over again in Syria in the coming months.’ (Jha 2014)

Jha further notes:

‘The Syrian government again chose to remain silent, and the only whiff of this event in the media was a rebel claim that they had captured and burnt an armoured personnel carrier. But in Damascus the US Ambassador, Robert Ford, told a group of Ambassadors that included the Indian ambassador, that the Syrian insurgency had been infiltrated by Al Qaeda. He had come to this conclusion because, in addition to cutting throats, the insurgents had cut off the head of one of the soldiers.’ (Jha 2014)

Another town where significant violence occurred was Banyas. The nature of the protests there was indicated in a video clip from 18 March which shows protestors being addressed by a cleric whose call was not for freedom and democracy but for the closure of mixed-sex schools and for women teachers to be able to wear the burqa, covering full face, in class. These demands were greeted with roars of approval from the crowd, which looks to be all male (Kevork Almassian 2017). It was in Banyas, on 10 April 2011, that gunmen fired on a bus of soldiers, killing nine of them (Narwani 2012-03-05). This is the event, noted in Hayward (2021b), that was misrepresented by The Guardian (in an article by the same journalist who claimed to have interviewed the ‘Gay Girl of Damascus’) as a case of the soldiers being shot by security forces after refusing to fire on protesters – a claim critiqued at the time by Joshua Landis (2011-04-13). This misrepresentation of the event – the story that soldiers were being killed by their own commanders – stuck hard throughout 2011, writes Narwani (2014), ‘and gave the media an excuse to ignore stories that security forces were being targeted by armed groups.’

In Homs, too, there are records early on of army officers and relatives being killed by members of an opposition focused on Islamist rather than democratic goals. As well as those reported attacks, there were also credible witness claims of a wider use of weapons by the opposition even in the earliest days. For example, Father Frans van der Lugt, a Dutch Jesuit priest who lived in Homs from 1966 until his death in April 2012 wrote in a letter published in January 2012 :

‘From the start, the protest movements were not purely peaceful. From the start I saw armed demonstrators marching along in the protests, who began to shoot at the police first. Very often the violence of the security forces has been a reaction to the brutal violence of the armed rebels.’

In all, during April 2011, eighty-eight soldiers were killed by unknown shooters in different areas across Syria, writes Narwani (2014), who further points out that other security forces like police and intelligence groups were on the front lines at the time, so any deaths among them were additional to that number.

By 18 April Syria’s Interior Ministry had issued a statement maintaining that unrest in the country now amounted to an ‘armed insurrection by armed groups belonging to Salafist organizations, especially in the cities of Homs and Banias.’ (Radio Free Europe 2011-04-18) Violence escalated through May and, according to Hala Jaber (2011-06-26), ‘[i]n all documented cases of violent clashes between state forces and civilian demonstrators, armed insurgents have always been present.’ On 5 June 2011, in a coordinated attack in Jisr al-Shughour, near to the Turkish border, armed groups killed some 120 members of the security forces. The exact death toll was uncertain, but the fact of the event did register, even if in a tendentious framing, with Reuters and the BBC – although not at all with The Guardian, which instead continued publishing reports about the ‘kidnapping’ of a fictitious ‘Gay Girl in Damascus’.

The tendentious framing of the Jisr al-Shughour case was the same as applied in the Western media whenever deaths of government forces had to be acknowledged: such events were invariably framed as defectors being executed by their own side. Narwani points out, however, that even Rami Abdul Rahman of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), who was by no means a government sympathiser, said of the ‘defector’ storyline: ‘This game of saying the army is killing defectors for leaving – I never accepted this because it is propaganda.’ Indeed, apart from the lack of corroborating evidence on any occasion, there was also conflicting evidence – as at Jisr al-Shakhour where even the opposition were not fired upon as they had expected. More generally, as Narwani writing in 2014 observed, ‘[i]f military commanders were shooting their own men, you can be certain the Syrian army would not have remained intact and united three years on.’ Nir Rosen (13 February 2012) who had spent several months on the ground in Syria during 2011, confirmed that ‘[w]hile fighters are often portrayed in the media as defectors from the Syrian military, the majority are civilians who have taken up arms.’ Ole Solvag, a researcher for Human Rights Watch (HRW), similarly confirmed that ‘he had documented violence “against captured soldiers and civilians” and that “there were sometimes weapons in the crowds and some demonstrators opened fire against government forces.”’ (quoted in Narwani 2014)

The fact is that just as evidence of opposition violence was downplayed in the media, there is evidence to suggest that extent of government responsibility for violence was sometimes exaggerated. A basic point to make is that if the government’s response was said by commentators in the press to be disproportionate, they should have sought – as Narwani and very few others did – to gather information that would serve to measure the violence on both sides. And to do that, due effort should have been made to attribute it accurately. This was no easy task, as the UN soon discovered, but the Western media made almost no attempt.

Historians who look back at the events of 2011 will be aware that however much Western publics may have been misled, Western intelligence agencies should have been under no illusions about the nature of the opposition in Syria – particularly since they had been monitoring potentials for conflict to exploit over a period of decades. The fact is that despite appearances of spontaneity in the opposition’s recourse to arms, a Chatham House report stated that ‘as early as March 2011 the founders of a Free Syrian Army (FSA) had nominated a spokesperson, released political statements and communiqués and established headquarters in Turkey’ [Chatham House report, p.15] and in summer 2011, in a military base in Turkey, it was officially established.’ FSA elements were fighting before being brought together in a command structure.

‘By late spring/early summer 2011 the violence had reached such a level of intensity as to warrant consideration that the requisite threshold had been crossed and that an armed conflict existed in Syria.’ (Chatham House report)

The report spoke of porous borders between Syria and both Turkey and Jordan which served to facilitate training and the movement of supplies, personnel and weapons. Liam Stack (6 June 2011) had noted ‘Some of the uprising’s harshest crackdowns have occurred in … border regions, like the town of Dara’a on the Jordanian border, and Baniyas, a coastal town close to Lebanon.’ This observation is consistent with the Syrian government’s claims of being confronted by foreign-sponsored violence.

Nevertheless, it might be asked whether the focus of this section on a violent sectarian opposition in Syria and its foreign backers overlooks a bigger picture of a peaceful democratic opposition supported by a great number of ordinary Syrian people. So that has also to be considered.

Political analysis of the situation in Syria in 2011

This book does not purport to offer a scholarly analysis of Syrian politics, but this section does aim to make sense of what Western publics were being told about political calls for a democratic revolution.

A superficially unified opposition

In Syria, in 2011, there were calls for democracy and there were calls for a revolution. The fundamental problem with Western press coverage was that it presented these together as manifesting a unified political will of the people. The reality, as intimated in the previous section, was that the groups most conspicuously seeking a revolutionary transformation of the Syrian constitutional order did not have in mind a democratic transformation. This fundamental tension and its significance have been recognized by reflective scholars and thoughtful observers, in line with a large part of the Syrian population.

Commenting at the time, Father Frans did not think that what was occurring in Syria could be described as ‘a “popular uprising,” since the majority of Syrians do not support the opposition and “certainly not” its armed component.’ He pointed out that in Syria

‘there are as many as 17 different groups, who find it difficult to coexist and whose national consciousness is very weak. In their feelings they belong more to their group than to their homeland. … What kind of democracy do you propose to all those tribes that are not very democratic?’ (Blogpost from 12 September 2011)

He saw ‘not even a superficial unity’ in the current opposition: ‘They are more “against” something than they are promoting something positive.’ A similar point was made by Robin Yassin-Kassab (2011-03-23) who wrote of the March 2011 protests that ‘motives for each of these events have been different and the groups themselves are disorganised and lack unity.’ He did not foresee the makings of a significant confrontation. The view also taken by May Akl (2011-04-19) at the time was that ‘most Syrians simply think that there is no better alternative to the current regime. Despite its history and much contested policies, Syria is — pragmatically speaking — a country that has managed to maintain its political stability in the region.’

Seen in this light, the new drive on the part of strategic communicators to demonise Assad was a rational strategy, in providing an apparent unity of focus for the opposition. Whether and how this would benefit the Syrian people, however, is another matter.

Yassin-Kassab recognized how both the hopes and fears of forward-looking politically secular Syrians were invested in a non-confrontational approach. The political reforms that were quite widely desired included abolishing the state of emergency and creating a fair and transparent judiciary so as to foster ‘an atmosphere that will allow a new generation of Syrian thinkers and politicians to emerge and to hopefully fulfil the role of a credible and legitimate opposition.’ Such hopes were based on an appreciation of ‘a space in Syria’s political arena, and a historical precedent, for experienced political leaders that have shared the burden of rule to advise and criticise in Syrian politics.’ In keeping with hopes in reform, as distinct from revolution, was the ‘deep unease that many Syrians today feel about the protests’. Yassin-Kassab quoted a friend from Deraa at that time: ‘few want revolution and many fear disorder and chaos.’(Yassin-Kassab 2011-03-21) ‘Everyone wants change, but they want orderly change.’ This is consonant with the early analysis of the situation by Camille Otrakji (2 May 2011), who argued that, although ‘dissatisfied with many aspects of the current regime …most Syrians would much rather see some meaningful reforms undertaken in a peaceful fashion over the next five years under the current regime, instead of trying to sweep the regime away and dealing with the prospect of sectarian civil war.’ It is because they are aware of their country’s vulnerability to instability, he believes, that ‘the vast majority are genuinely supportive, or tolerant, of the current regime, even if they are restless waiting for more reforms.’ Indeed, at the end of 2011, an opinion poll commissioned by The Doha Debates found that 55% of Syrians did not want the president to resign (Mat Hardy 2012).

Meagre prospects for a peaceful revolution

The sheer complexity of the situation and some of the hindrances to any transformation of it – which included the Assads’ ‘coup proofing’ of their political regime – was such as to render almost inconceivable any realistic political alternative that could be confidently expected to deal better with the challenges facing any new leadership of Syria. It was understood that the opposition lacked leadership or organized parties. The eminent scholar Raymond Hinnebusch offered this assessment:

‘it is uncertain whether a viable opposition exists. Aside from their shared belief that the regime is the source of all problems, the interests of well-off external exiles and the deprived foot soldiers of the rebellion hardly seem congruent.’ (Hinnebusch 2012: 113)

Hinnebusch also stressed a fundamental point that one never found discussed in the press and bears reiterating.

‘Any new government in Damascus will therefore be confronted with the same policy dilemmas and limited options that faced Asad’s, and will struggle to find better or even different answers to Syria’s intractable problems.’ (Hinnebusch 2012: 113)

It is sometimes said by those who speak from abroad of a ‘Syrian revolution’, in a manner to imply that there was such a unified and progressive reality, that sceptics ‘deny the agency of Syrians’. But agency pertains to agents, all of whom have their own experiences, hopes and goals; and insofar as they act in groups, these, in Syria, were many, various and often conflicting. (For a more swingeing critique see Phil Greaves 2014.) Insofar as hopes were invested in a peaceful, nonviolent, revolution, the difficulty was analysed by Srdja Popovic who had ‘worked with activists from Syria in the spring of 2011.’ (Ploquin 2015)  Popovic, as an experienced facilitator of ‘colour revolutions’, whose insights had been forged in the successful project of bringing down the president of his homeland, Serbia, was often commissioned to train members of movements in other countries that the West considered in need of ‘regime change’ (Gloria Novović 2014). His experience in seeking to train Syrian would-be peaceful revolutionaries revealed that not only was the regime coup-proof, it also appeared to be colour revolution proof. The group of Syrians sent to be trained were very different from each other, he observed,

‘but what united all of them was that they were not revolutionaries. None of them had ever expressed any burning interest in politics before the previous year. … When you asked them what kind of country they wanted Syria to be, they all said, “Normal.” They were just decent people who were never given opportunities to advance in their society and were bitter because they felt their futures were being unjustly robbed.’ (Popovic 2013)

His attempt to teach them such things as ‘the genius of laughtivism’ were not destined to bear much fruit. As he later reflected on the early situation in Syria, Popovic’s thoughts were very much in line with those who had countered the Western framing of it:

‘The movement in Syria, even in its nonviolent phase, especially now in the violent phase, didn’t have a unified strategy to create change. If you want a stable country or stable transition to democracy, it’s not about winning against one man, or one family, it’s about bringing out the change. This change can only function with large portions of society.’ (Popovic 2013)

If Popovic held out little hope for a peaceful democratic revolution, it would not have been due simply to the experience of meeting a small group of opposition activists. As someone in close contact with intelligence analysts at Stratfor, he would have been early aware of assessments like this from his friend Reva Bhalla:

‘by mid-March, a faceless opposition had emerged from the flashpoint city of Daraa in Syria’s largely conservative Sunni southwest. … Syria’s complex demographics make it a difficult country to rule. … the regime is still presiding over a military that remains largely unified and committed to putting down the protests with force.’ (Bhalla 2011-05-05)

The irresponsibility of foreigners talking up illusory hopes of a peaceful transformation

These considerations in turn alert us to an element of irresponsibility on the part of commentators who in 2011 were emphasising the supposedly unique badness of Syria’s current leadership. For the likelihood was that any realistic alternative could well prove in significant respects to be worse. Father Frans put bluntly his criticism of mainstream media’s framing of the conflict:

‘They demonize the one side and glorify the other… without engaging in any careful analysis of the real situation. Certain interests are obscuring our view of the real situation and contaminating the description of it.’ (in Rosenthal (2014).

Camille Otrakji (2 May 2011), similarly emphasised that while ‘a clear majority of Syrians support many of the demands of the peaceful protesters… only a minority of Syrians are willing to risk destabilizing their country in order to try to achieve full regime change after a painful drawn-out conflict.’ He too makes the point that this is not a view one would form on the basis of media reports. But he asks:

‘How do you think the pro-stability Syrians feel when everyone, from Western officials to journalists imply that they are automatically on the side of regime change?’

This question has been extraordinarily disregarded not only in the Western media, but even by academics. In fact, part of my resolve to write this book comes from meeting with a Syrian student whose university experience was such that they had to avoid writing essays related to their homeland, for fear of going against the orthodoxy they perceived as imposed on the class. The student permitted me to quote:

‘As a Syrian student who comes from a pro-government family, I have often felt conflicted between my personally held views and the overwhelming outlook of those around me in Scotland and at the university. … being a Syrian student studying at a Western institution has made it extremely difficult to wrap my head around the conflict of viewpoints I face as a Syrian but also a Western-educated student when thinking about and trying to research Syria.’ (in Hayward 2019)

This highlights something the mention of which has effectively become taboo and regarded as beyond the moral pail in discussions of Syria in the West. This is the fact that, however accurately the depth or scale of it was conveyed by Syrian state propaganda, there quite clearly was, and has remained, a significant part of the Syrian population that positively supported the president. According to May Akl (2011-04-19)

‘the Syrian people are generally proud of, and have high hopes for, their president. It is true that they are dismayed at the high level of corruption surrounding the president’s old guards, but they do believe that he can make gradual change (which he has already started) with economic reforms to be followed by the recently announced new wave of media and political reforms, in addition to today’s commitment to lift the 48-year-old emergency law. As such, they can view a gradual and smooth opening of the Syrian political system as a better and safer guarantee for a regime transition — even as this remains a long-term project.’

The respected independent-minded journalist Robert Fisk (2011-10-22), after describing some of the cruel tortures used in Syria, wrote ‘The current President knows all this and has tried to bring it to a halt. Largely, he has been successful. His regime has largely proved to be humanitarian.’ Jay Tharappel (2018), who had also been closely following events at the time, judged that Damascus seemed genuinely to be seeking to meet the reasonable demands for particular reforms, in contrast to the quite routine response in the press to each new reform that it was ‘too little, too late’.

Whichever judgment may be the more reasonable, the point is there was room for good faith debate on the matter. While hostile voices depicted President Assad as the problem in Syria, the suggestion is not so implausible as to be dismissed out of hand that, like it or not, he was the person best placed to tackle the problems in Syria. Those problems, it has further to be recognized, could well have been added to and exacerbated by all the foreign efforts aimed at ousting him.

This point about the scope for legitimate debate concerning the situation in Syria is all that is being argued for here. This argument does not preclude in principle the possibility that reasoned deliberation about the evidence might settle the debate in favour of the official Western narrative. What it does challenge, though, is the legitimacy of attempts to preclude a contrary possibility without engaging in reasoned deliberation about the evidence supporting it.